Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Lycurgus, Who Made His Countrymen Into Soldiers

No one can say just how much of the stories that Homer tells is true; but one thing seems certain, namely, that in very early times many of the Greeks joined together to wage war against the Trojans. They did not often unite in any undertaking, for Greece was made up of little kingdoms, generally separated from one another by mountains or arms of the sea; and each kingdom had its own laws and customs and was exceedingly jealous of the others.

There were several reasons, however, why the people of these little states felt that, quarrel as they might, they nevertheless belonged to the same family. They spoke the same language and they worshiped the same gods. They believed that the surest way to learn the will of the gods was to go to an oracle. The most famous was that of A-pol'lo at Del'phi, a wild spot in the mountains. From a cleft in the rock a stupefying vapor arose. The priestess breathed this until she was half unconscious. The priests noted carefully all her mutterings and broken sentences and interpreted them to the people who were always eagerly waiting for answers to questions of all sorts. These oracles were highly valued by all the Greeks; and, however much they might differ on other points, they were united in wishing to protect them and even the roads which led to them. For this purpose they formed am-phic'tv-on-ies, or "groups of neighbors."

Greek worship


A third bond among the Greeks was the games, in which no foreigner was allowed to take part. All the Greeks believed that the gods liked to see athletic contests; and therefore the games became very important. The most noted were held at O-lym'pi-a. At first there were only foot-races; but later there were wrestling, boxing, leaping, throwing quoits, hurling javelins, and races of four-horse chariots. The only reward given to the victor was a wreath of wild olive; but he was applauded and feasted; statues were set up in his honor, a seat was reserved for him at the theatre, and as long as he lived he was treated with the utmost respect.

Olympia foot-race


Each little kingdom had its own ways, as has been said; but the two that were most unlike were La-co'ni-a with its capital Spar'ta, and At'ti-ca, whose chief city was Ath'ens. The legends say that Ly-cur'gus was the person who established the customs of Sparta. When he was a young man, his enemies spread the story that he meant to steal the kingdom from the baby king. Lycurgus was so indignant that he left the country and stayed in exile for many years. When at length he came back, he was full of plans for making Laconia the strongest state in Greece. His countrymen were ready to follow his lead; but they must have been surprised at some of his requirements. First, he insisted that all the land should be divided equally among the citizens. The people agreed to this, but they would not agree to having the money divided; so Lycurgus had a law passed that iron should be used for money and that gold and silver should be of no value. He made them all, from the king down, eat at the same table and live on the simplest sort of food, a repulsive black broth being the principal dish. Their houses had to be built of rough logs. The doors could not have fitted very well; for it was forbidden to use any tool but the saw.



But Lycurgus was far more interested in the children than in the grown folk, and he planned to bring up the boys and girls to despise luxury and even comfort and to glory in being able to bear hardship. In the first place, no baby was allowed to live unless it seemed to be strong and well. Until the boys were twelve years old, they ran about naked, that they might become used to heat and cold and storm. To teach them to provide for themselves in time of war, he gave them little food and ordered them to steal the rest as best they could. If they were clumsy in doing this and were caught, they not only went without the food, but they were soundly whipped. Indeed, they seem to have been whipped for almost everything. The object of this was not only to make them perfectly obedient, but to teach them to bear pain. Once at least the older boys were brought before one of the altars and flogged most severely. The one who bore the suffering longest was given a reward and was praised by every one. It is said that one boy was flogged to death without even crying out.

The education of the boys was not neglected. They were taught music and poetry and a little of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Much more attention, however, was paid to teaching them to talk in the fashion that Lycurgus thought best. He bade them be silent unless they had something worth saying, and then to use few words. If a boy was asked a question, he was taught to make a brief, pointed reply. For instance, when a Spartan was asked if he would not come to listen to a person who could imitate the song of the nightingale, he replied, "I have heard the nightingale herself." This retort was certainly as rude as it was keen, but it was just what pleased Lycurgus.

The boys were expected to do their own thinking, and tests of their ability to do this were often given them. Every group of boys was in the charge of an i'ren, a young man of twenty years. From time to time, they were called together before the older men and the magistrates, and the iren bade them do various things to prove their progress. One of the hardest of these tests was to call upon a boy to tell whether some action of one of the prominent men was good or bad. He must not only say whether he thought it was wise or unwise, but he must give reasons for his opinion. If he did not do well, the iren punished him. After the test had come to an end, the boys were sent away; and now came the test of the iren himself. If it was thought that he had not decided wisely and justly, he was flogged even more severely than the boys.

The girls were not treated so harshly; but they were made to run and wrestle and throw quoits in order to make them hardy and strong. They were taught that the most admirable thing in the world was glory in war, and that a woman's highest honor was to lose her son in the service of the state. When a Spartan youth was starting out for battle, his mother's farewell was not tears and prayers, but the bidding, "Return with your shield or on your shield," that is, "Conquer or die."



This is the way Lycurgus trained his countrymen. He taught the young people to be kind and respectful to the aged, to be honest and upright, to tell the truth, and above all things to love their country. The Spartans became such brave soldiers and such devoted patriots that for nearly five hundred years Laconia was the strongest of the kingdoms of Greece. So far this training was most excellent; but on the other hand, the Spartans cannot have been very agreeable companions. They were so sure that their own ways were best that they despised the ways of other folk. Moreover, they were not polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, but had a disagreeable fashion of telling people how foolish they were and how much more wisely the Spartans managed affairs. Nevertheless, Lycurgus had made them just what he wanted them to be, a race of bold, hardy soldiers. The question was how to keep them so; for he was afraid that after he was dead, they would slip back into their old ways and become like the people of the other states. At length he fixed upon a plan. He called them together and told them that, much as had been done, there was still one thing more which was necessary to the prosperity of the kingdom. Before he revealed it, he must first make a journey to the oracle at Delphi, he said; and then he asked them, "Will you solemnly swear to obey the laws until I return?" Of course they would; the man who had made their country so great might ask whatever he chose; and they took a solemn oath to keep the laws. Lycurgus went to Delphi. He offered up a sacrifice to the gods, bade farewell to his son and the friends who had journeyed with him, and then refused all food and waited for death. He ordered that his body should be burned and his ashes not carried to his own country, but thrown into the sea; and thus the Spartans could never say that even his body had returned. This was the way by which he made sure that the people would keep his laws; and he died happy in the belief that his state would be strong and powerful forever.


The truth in Homer. — Delphi. — The Olympian games. — The requirements of Lycurgus. — How the Spartan boys were brought up. — Their fashion of talking. — The iren. — The treatment of girls. — The result of Spartan training. — The death of Lycurgus.